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The Material Culture of the Cook Islands (Aitutaki)

Ropes, Taura

Ropes, Taura.

The general term for ropes is taura as in Maori. The strands of a rope are henu. In New Zealand, the equivalent whenu has a similar meaning. The two-ply twisted technique is characteristic of cords as described. Two-ply twisted ropes may have been made but the ropes described were three-, and four-ply. Of the former, there were two distinct techniques.

Three-strand Ropes.

(1).Three-strand Twisted Ropes, taura rahiri.

In these, the strands were composed of wider strips of bast, generally of hau. Sinnet fibre owing to its shortness was unsuitable to this technique. Each strip of material was twisted on itself by the right hand to form a rounded cord. The ends were held by someone or tied to something. When a couple of inches had been twisted, the strand was held with the left hand, whilst the right hand twisted another strand in a similar manner. The second twisted strand was then twisted round the first, passing over it from right to left. As the two hands could only conveniently manage two strands at a time in this method, it was usual to twist two strands together for some distance, and then deal with the third constituent separately. The right hand seized a strip about an inch or so below the crossing of the cords and twisted it closely into a round cord by twisting the hand outwards by supinating the wrist. The twisted part was brought over to the left, where it was held by the left hand. The right hand seized the other strip from the back of the other, twisted it in a similar manner and crossed it to the left where it was held by the left, whilst the right page 66again seized the other strip from the back. Thus by successive supinating twists of the right hand, changing hands and picking up the strip from the back, a two-ply twisted cord was made. This technique was termed taviri or takaviri and though the results are the same, it is in marked distinction to the hiro technique which produced a two-ply twisted cord by rolling on the bare thigh. The latter is of course impossible with thick strands.

The third strand is twisted in a similar manner, and spirally twisted along one of the grooves formed between the previous two strands. See Fig. 67C, in which part of the third strand is left untwisted. Above its junction the rope is three-ply, and below, two-ply. The three-strand twisted rope is called a taura rahiri. It is very strong, which is expressed in the pehe

"Ei rahiri to kaha
Huti koe, vera ake to rima."

Let a rahiri be your rope,
You may haul till you burn your hands.

This implies of course that you may haul on the rope until you burn your hands with the friction, but it will not break. Also we note that kaha is used sometimes as a general term for rope as well as in its special meaning for sinnet braid.

(2).Three-strand Braid Rope, tauna hiri.

In braided sinnet ropes, owing to the thicker strands, the elements cannot be readily manipulated between the finger and the thumb. One end is therefore fixed to a support and the plaiting works towards the body of the worker. In this position, it is easier to alternately bring the side strands over the middle strand into the middle place. What really happens is that the strands have to be well pulled out to the sides to tighten up the work, so that there are two strands on one side, and one on the other. The posterior one of the pair is simply crossed over the one in front of it on its way to the other side, and this is done alternately on either side. This is shown in Fig. 66. In A, the strand 1 has just crossed 3, which was in front of it, and passed over to the left. Of the pair on the left, the posterior strand 2 is crossed over the one in front of it, namely 1, on its way across as in B. This now puts the pair page 67on the right. The posterior strand 3 is carried over its front strand 2 on its way to the left, as in C. Of the pair on the left, 1 will cross 3, and so on.

Figure 66. Plaiting a three-ply braid rope.

Figure 66.
Plaiting a three-ply braid rope.

Another difference is that both hands are free and take part in actively moving the strands, the right hand with the pairs on the right and the left with those on the left. Thus in Fig. 66A, the right hand brought strand 1 over from the right and then holds the point where it crossed, as indicated by the arrow. This is to prevent unravelling or loosening. The left hand now seizes 2, brings it across to right, where it is temporarily held by the right. The left hand lets go 2 and then holds the crossing shown by the arrow in B. This frees the right hand which seizes the posterior strand 3 on the right, and brings it across as in C. The strand 3 is temporarily held by the left hand. The right lets go 3, and holds the crossing shown by the arrow in C. This frees the left hand to deal with the posterior element 1 of the left hand pair, and so the process goes on.

The above obvious and well-known detail is described to emphasise the error of confusing an exactly similar appearance with exactly similar methods of technique. The relative relationship between the strands of a sinnet braid cord and a sinnet braid rope may be identical, but pulling the middle strand under the laterals whilst working away from the body, is surely a different technical method to pulling the laterals over the middle strand whilst working towards the body. Here the difference in method was due to the difference in quantity of material.

Besides sinnet fibre, the various barks used in making cords were also used for braided ropes. See Fig. 67A.

page 68

Braided ropes are termed taura hiri and hiri applies to braiding as distinct from taviri, twisting. In Maori, whiri applies to the plaiting of ropes as distinct from the plaiting of baskets and mats. It includes twisted ropes as well as braided ones.

Figure 67.Ropes of hau bark.

Figure 67.
Ropes of hau bark.

A.—Three-ply braid, taura hiri. B.—Four-ply taura puna.

C.—Three-ply twist, taura rahiri. D.—Pig rope, taura puaka.

Four-strand Round Rope, Taura puna.

These are made of bast, generally that of the hau. The four ends are first fixed and then two are crossed as in Fig. 68A. As the strand, 2, came from the left and crossed the other, the next strand, 3, must come from the right, and cross over one strand as in B. The principle of the plait may now be enunciated. Every strand coming in must pass round the back in the opposite direction to the last strand that came in. It must pass under the outer strand on its incoming side, and pass over the nearest of the remaining pair. Thus in the combination of three shown in B, the last strand, 3, came in from the right. The next strand, 4, must therefore cross the back to the left, pass under the outer strand, 1, and cross over the nearest of the remaining pair, which is 3. See Fig. 68C.

page 69
The outside strand in C is 1. As the last strand came in on the left, the strand, 1, must now cross the back of the rope to the right, pass under the outer strand, 2, and cross
Figure 68. Plaiting of four-strand round rope.

Figure 68.
Plaiting of four-strand round rope.

the nearer of the remaining pair, which is 4, at D. The outside strand in D is 2, which is on the right. It must pass round the back in the opposite direction, that is towards the left. It here passes under the outer strand, 3, and crosses over the nearer of the remaining pair, which is 1, as in E. In this manner, the round rope develops itself. The outside strand is always the furthest back, and is always on the side on which the last strand entered. It always passes round the back to the opposite side where it passes under the outer of the three, and over the nearer of the remaining pair. The appearance as the rope develops is shown in Fig. 68F. See also Fig. 67B.

These ropes were generally used as pig ropes with a modification for passing round the leg.

Pig Ropes, Taura puaka.

Pig ropes consisted of a round four-ply rope with a flat band containing a hole through which the rope was passed, Fig. 67D.

A simple one was made by twisting two long bast strips together at the middle, doubling the twisted part round a stake and crossing the two twists. One of the two strands of the under twist, 1, was passed over one strand, 3, and under the other, 4, of the upper twist which were turned in to meet it. The second strand, 2, of the under twist was then bent to pass under and over the two strands for the other side and thus maintain a check technique with four strands, Fig. 69A. A flat band of four strands was then continued in a check technique. On the left, the marginal strand was turned back over the next strand and page 70on the right, it was turned back under, Fig. 69B. The band was plaited loosely so as not to be too hard on the pig's leg and when about 4½ inches long, the four elements were
Figure 69. Plaiting of pig rope band.

Figure 69.
Plaiting of pig rope band.

continued on as a four-ply round rope made in the manner already described. When of sufficient length, the end of the rope was bound with a thin strip of bast. The band end was removed from the stake and the end of the rope passed through the hole. The rope was drawn closer to a loop, passed over the pig's leg and drawn taut. Thus the pig was tethered with the band round its leg to prevent it cutting.

The better form of pig rope shown in Fig. 67D is made with four strands of bast. At their mid-part they are plaited for about 1½ inches into a round rope. This plaited part is passed round the stake and the four strands from either side plaited into a flat band as before, except that there are eight plaiting strips instead of four. The technique, however, is exactly similar. In the sample figured, the plaited band is almost 1½ inches wide. Four and one-quarter inches from the near edge of the hole, the eight strands are collected into four and plaited into a four-ply round rope. The rope is six-tenths of an inch in diameter.

If flat bands made by a check plait are to be treated as coming under cords and ropes, the band of the pig-rope may be treated as a variety of four-ply rope. Similarly, the second type of band may be treated as an eight-ply rope. There may be other variations that served specific purposes in ancient times, but if so, their name and technique have vanished with the peculiar needs that called them into being.

page 71

The Naming of Ropes.

Some ropes had proper names. Such were the ropes that stayed the two masts of Te Herui's canoe "Rangi-pae-uta." That which supported the foremast was Hiku-manavenave-mua, and the other was Hiku-manavenave-muri.

Another famous rope was that which enabled Maui, the demi-god, to institute a practical Daylight Saving Bill by snaring the sun. The rope was a taura rahiri made with a three-ply twist from the bast of the hau and it was named Kurumoumou.


All incantation or pehe used in plaiting a rope, likens the island of Aitutaki to a fish and refers to the myth that it is tethered in position by rope. It also breathes of the pride with which the people regarded their land:—

E Tauviringa no te taura.
E tauviringa no te taura
No Ru-a-nu, no Te Mahanga.
E mahanga ka mou, ka mou.
Ka mou ki porau o ika,
Ka mou ki hatu o ika,
Ka mou ki vaenga o ika,
Ka mou ki hiku o ika.
Ka mou ki te punupunu,
Ka mou ki te utarei,
Ka mou ki te paraoa,
Ka mou ki te tohora,
Ka mou ki te ika taha-i-rangi.
Ka mou ki te ika turia e te anuanua.
Ka mou ki te aviho moana!
Taku henua!

The Plaiting of the Rope.
The plaiting of the rope
Of Ru-a-nu and Te Mahanga.
The knot, it holds, it holds.
It holds the head of the fish,
It holds the fins of the fish,
It holds the middle of the fish,
It holds the tail of the fish.
Within the circle of the sea,
It holds a fish of note.
It holds a porpoise,
It holds a whale,
It holds a fish that reaches to the heavens,
It holds a fish o'er which the rainbow arches,
Held in the immensity of the Ocean.
It is—My Land!

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Remarks. It is hardly necessary to remark upon the importance of cords and ropes to man in a stone-age culture. Nails, screws, bolts, wire and metal bands all had their functions discharged by lashings of cord or rope. The introduction of metals has wrought no greater change in the material culture of the Cook Group than in the various details in which cordage once reigned supreme. Sinnet braid is no longer an absolute necessity. As a result, its manufacture is rapidly disappearing. The imported two-ply twist of factory manufacture has taken its place in fish traps and lashings that are still required. The oranga, the purantea and the papako now hide their diminished heads amongst the ordinary flora and the younger generation of people knows them not. The hau alone retains a measure of its past importance. Nature with the kindly interest it has always displayed in man, has scattered it abroad with a prodigal hand. By the sea shore, in the recesses of the bush and along the modern roads, it grows in profusion, ever ready to yield its bark for any use from the stringing of fish and the tying of food to the mending of a four-wheel buggy. What the flax is to the Maori, so is the bark of the hau to the Polynesian. In spite of civilisation, they will always be needed in cases of emergency.

Civilisation has effaced much that the ethnologist seeks to decipher. The outward shape of the outrigger canoe remains, but the top-sides, seats, and bow and stern covers are nailed on, whilst the segments of the hull are held together by copper bolts. The nikau sheets on the roofs of houses give an outward shadow of the past but on entering within, one misses the symmetrical sinnet lashings that once, not only secured them in position, but contributed ornamentation of a pleasing nature. In fact, the sheets seem to remain in position by a miracle. The miracle is the metal nail driven through the midrib of the leaf into the woodwork of the kaho. The pandanus leaf roof has disappeared from Rarotonga, not through the natural change in culture but through the destruction of the plants by one of the many parasites that accompany improved European transport. Soon the nikau leaf roof will also disappear and the intrusive metal nail will find more appropriate companionship in associating with its true cultural companion, corrugated iron. Cultural changes are page 73inevitable but there are some elements of it that leave a feeling of sadness and regret.